Book Review: The Institute (Stephen King, 2019)

DSC_0476Year: 2019
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 485
ISBN: 9781529355390

Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts – telepathy, telekinesis – for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He’s just a regular twelve-year-old, except he’s not just smart, he’s super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use…

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He’s basically just walking the beat. But he’s about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute’s downtrodden playground of corridors where posters advertise ‘just another day in paradise’, Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments – even the infamous Mrs. Sigsby – suspect.

It’s fair to say that I was a little cautious going into The Institute because, as much as I love Stephen King’s work, I wasn’t as enthralled by his latest output as I have been by the classics from his back catalogue.  Sleeping Beauties, for instance, was a great read until the anticlimactic finale and implication that men are the cause of most of the world’s problems. Then there was Gwendy’s Button Box and Elevation – two enjoyable page-turners that were just too short and not wholly satisfying as a result.

But Amazon were offering the The Institute at half-price (£10 instead of £20) if the book was pre-ordered so I threw caution to the wind and did just that. I’m glad that I did too because The Institute is a fantastic read and a real return to form that left me with very little to dislike.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that it had the classic King formula of multiple plot strands converging for the endgame. On one hand, there is Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter. Jamieson is hitch-hiking his way to New York, taking on temporary jobs along the way, until fate brings him to the tiny South Carolina town of Dupray. Tim takes on an old-school night knocker job, only intending to stay in town for a while, but finds himself unexpectedly warming to small-town life and the people in Dupray. And they warm to him too. Tim quickly goes up in the estimations of Sheriff Ashworth and also manages to impress the frosty Deputy Wendy Gullickson, earning himself a dinner date with the attractive officer.

But if life is on the up and up for Tim, the same can’t be said for Luke Ellis. Luke is a child genius – a real one-in-a-million find – who is about to be enrolled into two colleges simultaneously…at the age of just twelve. Bright, popular and seemingly destined for greatness, Luke’s life should be about to take off but other people have different ideas. Luke is abducted from his home in the dead of night – and his parents murdered – by a special ops team who deliver him to the titular Institute, a top-secret off-the-books state facility that gathers together gifted children and subjects them to experiments.

It isn’t Luke’s incredible intelligence that the Institute are after however; it’s his latent telekinetic (TK) abilities. The Institute acquires children with TK or TP (telepathy) and uses their collected power to eliminate targets deemed dangerous for the world’s stability; terrorist leaders for example, or prominent figures that are seemingly on-course to start undesirable chains of events. The kids don’t know this to begin with though. What they do know is that they live in eerie replicas of their real bedrooms and have the freedom to roam the corridors of the Institute, use the vending machines and even access the (censored) internet…provided that they have earnt tokens from the Institute’s staff of course. They can even buy cigarettes and alcohol from the vending machines!

But this soft, open-prison style of incarceration comes with a nasty side. Scientists at the Institute subject the kids to all kinds of experiments that initially make little to no sense to Luke and his new group of friends. Failure to co-operate results in beatings, electric shocks from stun guns and even waterboarding. And this all before they have even graduated to the dreaded ‘Back Half’ of the Institute where their TK/TP abilities will be harnessed for the “greater good”.

So you have these two seemingly disconnected plots running parallel to one another before they finally meet up. It works very well in my opinion because I grew to really enjoy each of the lead characters and the supporting casts surrounding them. Whether it’s the town folk in Tim’s story or the kids that Luke befriends inside the Institute, both sides of the book are nicely fleshed-out and even the most minor of the supporting characters are brought to life believably in that special way that Stephen King has always been so adept at doing. Admittedly, there is more intrigue in Luke’s story but I wouldn’t say that either half is weak.

And you will love to hate those Institute people. From the cold and ruthless Mrs. Sigsby to the caretakers who seem to enjoy beating on kids and torturing them – they are all pretty nasty pieces of work and the cruelty that takes place within the walls of the Institute is described vividly by King with no punches pulled, even if it is just scared children who are the victims.

The book is apparently inspired by the thousands of children who go missing all across America each year and never seen again. The themes of government conspiracy and black site operations are also so relevant in this post-Wikileaks age where countless Youtubers and internet sites are eager to show you the proof that operations like the Institute are, perhaps, not so fictional at all.

I think that Stephen King has really done it again with The Institute. I would have liked the book to be just a little bit thicker and have the same level of detailed characterisation that the likes of IT and The Stand boasted but that’s pretty much the only criticism I have. The plot is full of intrigue and leads up to a fast-moving, action-packed finale that I found myself unwilling to pause with a bookmark. And the characters – as I have already said – are just so likable (or detestable in the case of the Institute’s staff). I would say that this is the best Stephen King book in this style since the fantastic Doctor Sleep (which seems like such a long time ago now!).

Highly recommended.

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